Peyton and Eli Manning Can’t Save the NFL

The retired quarterbacks are giving Monday Night Football a glow up. But the league needs to do more than that to connect with Gen Z.

an image of Eli and Peyton Manning's show on Monday Night Football
ESPN / Youtube ; The Atlantic

Chalk up one more anomaly to These Unprecedented Times: Something genuinely weird is happening on an NFL broadcast. For this season of its marquee Monday Night Football program, ESPN is airing an additional broadcast featuring the brothers and retired Super Bowl–winning quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning. The “Manning-cast,” as sports media have affectionately dubbed it, has the hangout feel of a Twitch stream: The Mannings break down the game as talking heads from their couches, frequently digressing at length from the on-the-field action to go deep with some football wonkery or welcome a procession of celebrity guests, including LeBron James and Charles Barkley.

If “Tampa 2” sounds more like a vacation booking than football terminology to you, the program also contains a hefty dose of what can only be described as “antics.” During last night’s broadcast, a snoozer of a game in which the Dallas Cowboys demolished the Philadelphia Eagles, Eli flipped a double bird and danced around in his socks, quoting Shakira, while Peyton sternly argued in real time with a notorious Twitter troll. In the three short weeks the Manning-cast has been on the air (seven more episodes are slotted for the rest of the season), Eli’s home fire alarm has interrupted a broadcast, Peyton has struggled to fit his massive cranium into a football helmet, and the duo have occasionally had to hustle like fast-talking talk-show hosts to get through segments before a commercial break.

This is not what Monday Night Football typically looks like. The program’s spit-shined, hyper-professionalized modern incarnation is one of the most watched things on all of television. It earned 8 percent of the league’s nearly $3 billion in ad revenue last season and employs dozens of staffers just to make its absurdist graphics. The NFL embodies a certain Big Business philosophical conservatism, and yet the Manning-cast genuinely innovates in how it deconstructs the league’s televised product. Unsurprisingly, viewers are loving it. A spokesperson for ESPN said in an email that the Manning-cast brought in an additional 2.8 million viewers last week, up from 2 million the week before.

But who, at the end of this day, is this really for? The NFL, and American professional sports leagues across the board, is bleeding viewers younger than 35. The future of its mind-bogglingly lucrative deals for broadcast rights depends on the league’s success at earning the loyalty of younger fans and prying them from their smartphones. According to a recent report from Sportico, the median viewer age for NBC’s Sunday Night Football is just over 53 years old.

Hopelessly addicted football nerds like myself were always going to love the Manning-cast. But it seems unlikely that the answer to the league’s wider existential dilemma is to lean so heavily on two Brooks Brothers–clad 40-somethings. Football’s powers that be have finally taken a stab at something new. But in doing so they’ve revealed the extent to which the league and its media partners are captured by their own success, stuck drawing from a wellspring of nostalgia and tradition even when trying to power the future.

Although the Manning-cast adopts some very Gen Z aesthetic trappings, you don’t have to watch for long to figure out that neither Manning is an obvious star for the TikTok cohort. Peyton has a dadcore style and demeanor, while Eli’s relentless deadpan is not exactly made for YouTube. The show might be parent-friendly bridge content, but Rich Luker, a social psychologist and the creator of the sports-marketing tool ESPN Sports Poll, told me that that’s probably not sufficient to ensure generational succession in football’s fandom. “They’re doing the right thing … [but] if you aren’t doing something where the youth is relevant, you’re not going to get a benefit,” he said. “So the fact that they’re doing something right is not enough.”

This particular approach to such a flagship product might be understandable, given the long history of ignominious failed attempts at innovation in the booth. And the league’s core of older viewers, resistant to big changes, still props up a remarkably massive enterprise: Billions in ad revenue are wrapped up in NFL broadcasts, a number that’s only expected to rise as America emerges from the pandemic and years of mostly unwanted gridiron political controversy fade away. Still, that creates a fundamental tension in which one of the biggest drivers of media ad dollars is unable to tap into the coveted 18-to-49-year-old (and, more and more, 18-to-34-year-old) demographic that those dollars are spent to reach. “If you look at [younger generations] and their interest in Monday Night Football, it’s almost nothing,” says Irving Rein, a professor emeritus of communication studies at Northwestern University and the author of The Elusive Fan: Reinventing Sports in a Crowded Marketplace.

The NFL, which did not respond to a request for comment, has made more overtly youth-friendly media overtures before. A partnership with Nickelodeon last year earned warm (if somewhat befuddled) reviews, and it will reoccur this season, but it’s too soon to know whether it will inculcate a new generation of fans. Amazon has acquired exclusive streaming rights to Thursday Night Football starting in 2022, and will feature the games on Twitch, which Twitch has announced will include streamers “from buttoned up sports talk pros to gamers who happen to be big fans.”

And from the NFL’s point of view, the Manning-cast might still be a resounding success even if it doesn’t lead to throngs of teens aching to watch the Detroit Lions, simply by virtue of what those in the business refer to as “earned media.” “The Manning-cast works so well as a product that it might not even matter if it doesn’t succeed in its mission of getting a broader audience to watch Monday Night Football on the ESPN networks,” J. A. Adande, Northwestern’s director of sports journalism and a frequent ESPN panelist, told me in an email. “It could be that cuts and quotes of the Manning brothers’ quips is relieving people of the need to watch both the regular broadcast and the Manning-cast. Maybe that’s okay.”

Ultimately, as much of a breakthrough as the Manning-cast has been, it’s still hard to imagine the league or its broadcast partners leaping feetfirst into the kind of foundation-scrambling experimentation—think turning a major weekly game over to a gaggle of experienced podcasters or streamers, or massively expanding the number of games that can be easily streamed—that would make Gen Z feel as if it has cultural ownership of the game-day experience, in the same way their parents have for decades.

The NFL, then, finds itself exactly as it was before the Manning-cast: a league that’s too big to fail. Despite frequent warnings of impending doom, it still dominates the American sports-media landscape, earning more annual revenue than the NBA and NHL combined. Surely to some in the league, the notion that a course correction is necessary—or even desirable—is laughable. But that very dominance makes the league and its partners overly cautious in a way that could one day jeopardize the sport’s current centrality to American life. The Manning-cast embodies both the enormous strength and potential weakness of the NFL and its media apparatus, with one navy-blue-socked foot stuck stubbornly in the past, knowing that it needs to look toward the future.